Library digitization yields new opportunities, challenges

For current Swarthmore students, who have all been raised and reared in the internet age, it may be easy to take the library’s online catalog and digital collections for granted. At this point in time, a student could reasonably write a detailed and high quality research paper with any number of sources without ever leaving her bed, by pulling up articles and e-books and other online resources on her laptop. As natural as this seems now, the digitization of the libraries is a relatively recent project, and an ongoing one. Of the 40-person staff of the Swarthmore libraries, most are somehow engaged with digital and online projects.

The college committed to the creation of an online catalog in 1986, and the Tri-College Library Consortium was created around that goal. At the time, it was not uniformly accepted as a worthwhile goal. Barbara Weir, the associate college librarian for technical services at McCabe, remembered that some people at the college regarded it as a waste of money.

“Staff members were enthusiastic about the prospect of library automation, but there was some apprehension. Few if any of us had ever seen an online catalog, and we weren’t sure what to expect or what the final product would be like,” recalled Barbara Addison, technical services librarian for the Peace Collection and the Friends Historical Library.

Nonetheless, the librarians of the three colleges went to work gathering bibliographical data on all of their collections and creating item records for every single book they housed.

The three colleges’ unity around and through this project represented a culmination of a decades-long attempt at library cooperation. Since the 1930s and 40s, there have been efforts to consolidate the libraries in order to provide greater access and knowledge sharing across the colleges, and even among Philadelphia area libraries more broadly. Attempts to unite the libraries under common leadership failed and efforts to cross-catalog certain collections were dismissed or short-lived.

But the prospect of digital cataloging provided a new and unique opportunity for collaboration. Between 1987 and 1991, the colleges pursued joint fundraising for the automation of the Tri-College libraries and collected nearly a million dollars’ worth of grants for the project. TriPod was selected from a list of a dozen or so possible vendors, and the Tri-College online catalog went live for librarians in 1990. After some troubleshooting, the catalog of more than a million records went public for use at the colleges.

Addison remembers the task of creating Tripod as a complicated endeavor, which involved cooperation from every department of library staff at each college. Ultimately, she remarked that the positive effects of the online Tri-college catalog were vast and immediately apparent.

“We were very fortunate in our Automation Coordinator, Linda Bills, who not only had the technical expertise but also the interpersonal skills to help, guide and cajole the staff from the three libraries, which included several unique collections, that had always been proudly autonomous,” she noted. Sharing resources, collecting statistics, and surveying the collections became vastly easier.

Nearly 25 years after its first use at Swarthmore, Tripod looks very different than it did in its original iteration. The original form was a bare-bones character-based system that would look most familiar to someone who codes. In fact, Weir has recently heard that some computer science majors still connect to the oldest version rather than the newest one, though she herself isn’t sure how they are accessing it. The newest form of Tripod went live three years ago (the previous version, Tripod Classic, is still live online for comparison). This update was designed with an eye towards easier exploring and discovering, and with the goal of making specific and narrowed searching more intuitive for users. Kate Carter, head of digital initiatives and scholarship, pointed out that Tripod Classic had many of the same searching features, but they were not as user-friendly, and the new version was intended to address that.

The digitization project has also expanded far beyond Tripod itself. Various systems, including Triptych and Triceratops, are now in use to house different online collections, and as a college we subscribe to numerous different services that allow us access to a host of other online journals and publications. The Friends Historical Library started digitizing its own original materials in the late 1990s, due to the requests of scholars and students. It now digitizes for three distinct purposes: first, on-demand digitization at the request of students, faculty, and outside scholars; second, digitization for preservation purposes, to create surrogates for fragile or highly demanded materials and keep the originals out of frequent use; third, and most recently, digitization for the sake of displaying the library’s exhibits to a broader audience.

This influx digital resources — including materials born online and digital copies of print materials, not all accessible through just one platform — has had a large impact on how students might engage with research. Peggy Seiden, college librarian for McCabe, noted that the library can now provide thousands more journals than was previously possible. There is also a greater diversity of scholarly materials being created online, which Seiden lauded as expanding the knowledge available to Swarthmore students.

“In the past, only scholars in a particular field could get access to emerging research through what was then known as the “invisible college.” But the internet has opened up this “college” so that even undergraduates may tap into it,” she said. She also noted that the vast numbers of available resources makes it a greater challenge to effectively sift through those resources.

“Discovery of the most relevant resources, when so much information is readily at hand, is not easy,” she said, adding that “the ease of retrieval belies the difficulty of scholarly research.”

The plethora of new resources has also resulted in some concern among librarians that students and faculty are not aware of all the resources available to them, and how to access them. Part of Maria Aghazarian’s job as serials and e-resources specialist at McCabe is to resolve access issues around online resources for students, faculty, and alumni, and to help them navigate the various online subscriptions we have access to.

While Aghazarian maintained that more often than not, we do have access to articles that students are searching for, it is not always immediately apparent, and Aghazarian believes that students often write off a potential article even though they could gain access with a little maneuvering. She also noted that, in general, Swarthmore students are less likely than Bryn Mawr or Haverford students to reach out to librarians with access issues. Aghazarian, a recent Bryn Mawr graduate, said she realizes and regrets how little she utilized the resources available to her as an undergraduate.

“I didn’t really know how to use the library until I became a librarian, and that’s a huge problem,” Aghazarian said. Weir highlighted the fact that the problem of underutilization is not unique to Swarthmore. She cited a recent survey on library quality conducted at various large and prestigious universities — ones with even more extensive libraries than Swarthmore’s — wherein faculty wherein asked if they were satisfied with the library’s collections or not. Most often they said no, but when asked what should be added to the collections, the professors listed journals and other resources that the schools did in fact provide access to. The problem actually lay in awareness, and communication between faculty and librarians about how to access the various subscriptions and online collections, similar to the problem Aghazarian has noticed.

Digitization has also provided new opportunities for the librarians to expand their efforts to support institutional memory. Melinda Kleppinger, government documents and digital archives specialist at McCabe, has worked in recent years to digitize all prior issues of the Phoenix and the Halcyon that still exist. Issues of the Phoenix published between 1881 and 2011 are now available on Triptych, the Tri-College Digital Library, which shows scanned versions of the print copies as well as full-text transcriptions of the content. The Swarthmore Student Publications collection, also on Triptych, contains almost 800 items, all of which are issues of student publications produced between 1873 and 2013.

The digital age has provided a new platform for the preservation of these documents, and makes accessing them increasingly simple, but it has also presented a new set of barriers to institutional memory. As the format of materials changed over time, the libraries had to adapt their archiving methods in response.

“There began to be a lot of realization that we need to capture these student records, in whatever form they come,” said Carter. Patricia O’Donnell, archivist at the Friends Historical Library, lamented the fact that when record-keeping for student activities switched over to being largely digital, there were no standards for the preservation of those records. To illustrate this point, she noted that the Friends Historical Library has a huge analog collection of photographs of the college that stops entirely around 1998.

“There’s a real period where we were probably lacking a lot of material because digital records weren’t standardized,” O’Donnell commented. Now, she said, protocols are being determined and fine-tuned for how to curate and preserve a collection of materials about that college now that much of that material is created or published digitally. “A collections policy and digital collections policy enables us to focus and collect what we collect in an organized fashion,” O’Donnell explained.

Ultimately, though she recalls that part of the initial sell for digitization was the claim that it would make the librarian’s work more efficient, O’Donnell said that creating and maintaining the digital components of the library has more than doubled the work of many Swarthmore librarians. But this increased effort has yielded a vast expanse of available resources for students and faculty, and is a necessary part of moving the libraries into the future. “Basically these days, if you don’t have things online, you don’t exist,” O’Donnell said.

For her part, Weir does not see a future, or at least not a near one, for the Swarthmore libraries that is entirely digital. The librarians have recently surveyed their student workers about attitudes towards reading on screens versus in print, and saw a general preference towards print copies when available. Major concerns about electronic readers included the strain they cause for people’s eyes and the inconvenience of making annotations while reading. “My guess is that there will someday be a tablet that addresses these issues and makes us re-think the print vs. [electronic] divide, but we aren’t there yet,” Weir said.

As of this year, the Swarthmore libraries house over 990,000 physical items, a vast majority of which are print items (101,700 of them are audio, video, and microform). The digital items are much more difficult to count, as there is some debate over how to count and categorize a number of resources. According the most recent report on digital items, from last academic year, we have over 300,000 pieces of digital media (not including the over 400,000 news clips available through the Vanderbilt TV News Archive), over 645,000 ebooks on Tripod, over 8500 online serials, and 252 database subscriptions.

“We really are still in transition,” O’Donnell said of library digitization in general. The Swarthmore libraries have been thoroughly launched into a new age of library science, and our librarians will continue to grapple with the new challenges that this shift presents. Staff development is required every semester, but the librarian’s would be engaged with new developments regardless of this requirement.

As Aghazarian explained, “It’s so easy in a field that’s expanding in such innovative ways.”


1 Comment

  1. Although not mentioned in the article, the Swarthmore College Peace Collection also has a long history of participating in the library digitization projects, creating our first web site in 1996 and digitizing our early Soviet poster collection and political button collection at about the same time. We currently have tens of thousands of images and documents available via Triptych and photograph exhibits on our web site. Our biggest challenge at present is finding a way to preserve and provide access to our 100,000+ files (and always growing), set of unique, born-digital documents and images created by active peace organizations.

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